Remembering Ed Koch, From Paris

I am writing this from Paris, where I am participating in the mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. We are here for five days, and will be moving on for five days of meeting in Israel this coming Sunday.

I left New York this past Monday, literally on my way to the airport as the funeral for former Mayor Ed Koch was finishing. On this day when I was privileged to meet the President of France in the Élysées Palace, I readily admit that it feels more than a little strange to be thinking about New York. Paris is such an overwhelmingly beautiful and impressive city that it takes your breath away. It’s hard to think of anywhere else when you’re here. But true though that is, I still find myself thinking about Mayor Koch, who during his tenure in office and perhaps more when he left office, became one of the enduring iconic images of one of the world’s most iconic cities.

It is fair to say that E Koch was an acquired taste. Like the common stereotype of a New Yorker, he was, I would charitably say, “blessed with strong opinions.” If he loved you, you knew it. If he didn’t love you, you knew it even more. He had a razor sharp wit, a facile and acquisitive mind, and a passion for his city that knew no bounds. Unlike so many contemporary politicians who hide from the public lest they say something that their handlers have warned them to avoid like the plague, Ed Koch threw himself into encounters with the people he led with unbridled joy. To be sure, his extra-large sized ego thirsted for New Yorkers eager to tell him that he was doing his job well. But he never shied away, in fear or in search of political shelter, from those who felt otherwise. He knew every nuance of public policy issues as well as or better than anyone else, and he would willingly debate the issues. And if you disagreed with him, he had a few words in his vocabulary that he could employ…

Both as a veteran of thirty-two years in the pulpit and now as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I am fascinated by effective, if different, models of leadership. Every year, as we read through the annual Torah cycle, I find myself intrigued anew by Moses. He is described as the most humble man to ever have walked the earth, but he evidences more than a little chutzpah, both with God and with Israel, when the occasion seems to warrant it. In the ongoing difficult economic climate of this country, effective corporate leadership remains a hot topic. Book after book by self-styled corporate gurus dot the bookshelves of both Barnes and Noble and cyberspace. Having a vision, successfully articulating that vision, and then getting people to follow it… that’s the “stuff” of which successful leadership is made.

By and large, in the political world, leaders come and go, and relatively rare is the one whose memory endures. Even rarer are the ones who are loved, or revered.

Think about it. FDR was loved by those of my parents’ generation, for having guided America out of the Great Depression, and ultimately for leading America to victory in World War II. My generation has much more trouble with him because of his failure to save European Jewry, but he surely was an effective and beloved leader.

For a variety of reasons, Mayor Giuliani was not a personal favorite of mine. Actually, in more than a few instances, I thought that he could be brutal. But in the aftermath of 9/11, those same qualities that made him difficult to abide under normal circumstances also made him exactly the right person to guide the city through its grief and trauma. He was a great leader, far more human and vulnerable in his strength, in the aftermath of the Twin Towers.

But the truth, of course, is that great leadership is not about being loved. It is, far more, about being respected. It is, as I said earlier, about being possessed of core values, having a clear vision, articulating it effectively, and getting those you are charged with leading to buy in. And if you happen to become loved and/or revered in the process, well, that’s a great bonus…

According to these criteria, Ed Koch was a great leader- one of the greatest that the great city of New York has ever known. He succeeded in imprinting his personal style on the city that he loved, but not for its own sake. His personality- his irrepressible, outsized personality- was part and parcel of his leadership style. Being outspoken and impossible to ignore was how Ed Koch made his point, and when he did, you tended not to forget it.

And in the process, he became- improbably- beloved by the city that he adored.

Here in Paris, virtually every block is iconic. It seems familiar from this song, that movie, or a favorite piece of literature. I had to smile when I saw a poster for Les Mis- so eerie! But the sense I have is that being here is a classic case of what the ancient rabbis would have called hammakom m’khabed et ha’adam. The place itself confers honor upon the person who is here. To the rabbis, that is not the true dynamic of gaining honor. Ha’adam m’khabed et hammakom; it is the person who confers honor upon the place.

New York is, by any criteria, a great place; among the greatest. But it was made greater because it was Ed Koch’s stage. He honored the city. It was where he worked his craft, and we New Yorkers were so much the better for it.

Y’heh Zichro Baruch; May his memory always be a source of blessing!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.